April 10, 2015
Last week, husband and wife ornithologist team Kimball Garrett (Museum ornithology collections manager) and Kathy Molina (Museum Research Associate) partnered with citizen science staff to band house sparrows (Passer domesticus). We hope that by banding these birds, we'll be able to understand how they use our urban environment. These little brown birds are literally everywhere, yet not much is known about their local behavior. What we do know is that they are originally from Europe and were purposefully introduced to North America starting in the 1850s. Because they are very adaptable in both urban and rural areas, their numbers have since exploded. You might recognize them as the bird that once stole your French fries!
Kimball wants to know more, "do they spend all day feeding and socializing in our Nature Gardens or do some have lunch at the Science Center and then come back?” I'm thinking they could even head over to USC for happy hour snacks! But, how do you figure out where our birds hang out, what they do? Sure, radio tracking is an option but that is expensive and difficult to pull off, especially on small birds. A cheaper, and I'd contend more engaging process, is to think about bird accessories—colored ankle bracelets, aka bird bands!
To get this citizen science project off the ground, we had to have some birds in hand (pun intended). Although house sparrows seem super friendly, literally coming in for a landing at our cafe tables, they really don't want to be caught. We tried using potter traps (little wire mesh traps that get tripped when they go in to eat the bait we've left inside), but none of them were curious enough to hop in on this day. It was clear that we needed an additional strategy. Kimball and Kathy decided to set up some mist nets.
We anxiously waited, becoming more and more worried that we would not catch anything, especially as school children began to crowd around our trapping areas. But then finally one flew into the net (don't worry the birds are not harmed in any way, its almost as if they're lying in a hammock)! A female! The challenge was still not over once it was caught. These birds are tough and are not afraid to bite. In fact, I had to loosen the sparrow’s beak from Kimball’s finger. Once the bird was in hand, Kimball and Kathy quickly and deftly attached the colored bands --two bands on the left or right leg (six different colors), which gives us the option of uniquely marking up to 72 birds. They also applied a uniquely numbered metal band issued by the U.S. Geological Survey, took a wing measurement and weighed the bird.
Although, we only caught two birds on this first try, we plan to band and release many more. Eventually, the Nature Gardens and Exposition Park will have a whole flock of banded house sparrows, and that's when we'll need your help. We're going to need your citizen scientist eyes to track these banded sparrows. So on your next visit to NHMLA or Exposition Park, keep your eyes open. If you spot a banded house sparrow, please let us know. All you have to do is send us a quick e-mail with the date, time, exact location, what the bird was doing, and what color bands you saw on their legs (remember not to mix up their left and right) to firstname.lastname@example.org. If you're fast and lucky enough to get a picture, send that along too. We can't wait to see how this all works out! Written by Miguel Ordeñana
April 1, 2015
Spring is here and everyone is totally digging the wildflower display in our Nature Gardens. Casey Schreiner from Modern Hiker even gave us a shoutout on Instagram.
It's a good day for #wildflowers at the @nhmla! The two flowers vying for your attention in this photo are, according to Carol Bornstein Nature Gardens Director and native plant guru, "the white-tipped yellow blossoms of tidy tips, Layia platyglossa, and tansy leaf phacelia, Phacelia tanacetifolia." Carol goes on to explain, "the nectar-rich, sweetly scented purple flowers of this taller annual are attracting droves of bees." Boy is this true. Earlier this week, Museum Gallery Interpretper, Ashley Hall, witnessed this first hand. Ashely’s seen bees in the garden hundreds of times, pointed them out to visitors, and taken lots of pictures of them. But this week something was different. Ashley noticed that the bees visiting the phacelia flowers had purple pollen baskets, or as the entomologists like to call them, corbiculae. We all know that hungry bees visit flowers for that tasty nectar treat that will fuel their active lifestyles. Some of this nectar will be taken back to the hive to be turned into honey, so they can eat it in the leaner winter months. But to supplement their carbo-laden diet, bees also collect pollen to add a protein punch. As bees are going from flower to flower they are also inadvertently transferring pollen—“picking up” pollen grains from the male flower parts (anthers), and then “dropping them off” on the female bits (stigmas). Thanks to this act of pollination, seeds will eventually form, ripen, and fall to the ground. In our dry California climate, wildflower seeds will wait all summer long, until the rainy season comes again in the fall (keep your fingers crossed with me). This sweet, long awaited rain will stimulate germination and ensure another crop of tansy leaf phacelia in our garden.
But why is phacelia pollen purple? When we think of pollen, most people think of a bright yellow powder. But in fact, pollen comes in a whole painters’ palette—from white to orange, and green to brown and red, even bright blue, fuschia, and purple! In traditional yellow pollen, the color is mostly derived from flavonoids, chemicals found in abundance in citrus. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been a lot of research on what makes pollen purple, but my guess is another colorful compound, anthocyanin which is present in blueberries and raspberries. Boy do I wish I had paid closer in Chemistry classes. Regardless of the ultimate chemical cause of the color, we’re sure glad Ashley took a moment to look closely at the bees buzzing around the gardens. Just imagine what you’ll find next time you put your nature eyes on in LA!
June 13, 2017
April 19, 2017
March 19, 2015
By Emily Hartop When I came to work at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, I had no idea exactly what was in store for me. The NHMLA had recently initiated a massive study to search for biodiversity, or the variety of life forms in a particular area. This study wasn’t taking place in some lush tropical jungle, though; in fact, far from it. This fabulous study was (and is) taking place in the backyards of Los Angeles. I got hired to be part of the entomological team for this urban project called BioSCAN (Biodiversity Science: City and Nature) and before I knew it, I was describing 30 new species of flies collected right here in the City of Angels. Before I explain how this all happened, let’s pause and say that again: 30 new species of flies were described from urban Los Angeles in 2015. Let’s expand: these flies were caught in three months of sampling and are all in the same genus. What does this mean for us? It means that even in the very areas where we live and work, our biodiversity is critically understudied. It means that in your own backyard, or community park, live species that we do not even know exist. It means that all of those invisible ecosystem processes that occur all around us are being conducted, in part, by creatures we know nothing of. It means BioSCAN is off to a good start, but we have a lot of work to do. Beginnings My boss, NHMLA Curator of Entomology Dr. Brian Brown, has spent years working on an amazing group of flies called phorids. When I started in January 2014, I knew next to nothing about phorids; I knew they were small flies that did some cool things (like decapitating ants and killing bees and eating cadavers in coffins) and that was about it. When I came in to volunteer my time prior to my official start date, Brian sat me down with some samples from Costa Rican rice paddies and asked me to pull out all the phorids for further study. I only vaguely knew what a phorid even looked like, so I had a steep learning curve that first day. Soon, though, I could recognize a phorid as easily as picking out an orange in a bunch of apples. After I got a feel for phorids at the family level, I had to learn the Los Angeles species so that I could identify them and we could start tallying them up for our project. Brian taught me some of the genera in the family and their characteristics. Then he showed me a species called Megaselia agarici. This species has a prominent, pale protrusion on its genitalia (and speaking of genitalia: I’m going to say 90% of our identification work focuses on these for flies, we are obsessed with fly genitalia…), making it easy to pick out at the species level. Great! With my notebook in hand, I eagerly asked Brian, “So, I can pick out this species, but how do I know this group on the generic level, what is a Megaselia?” Brian’s response should have dissuaded me from this group: “Megaselia is a giant genus, about half of the phorid family. Eliminate the other genera as possibilities and if it’s not something else, it’s likely Megaselia.” A sane person would have left it alone. A sane person would have quietly learned the few Megaselia species that are well known and easy to recognize and quietly set the rest aside for someone else to deal with. But not me. I became intrigued. Getting to work (and to tea)
The flies! Photography by Kelsey Bailey.[/caption]I started to see the same species over and over, I started to notice small differences between the flies when I would sort samples. I started to make little sketches and write notes. Gradually, I started giving these flies funny names: this one’s genitalia look like bunny ears, I’ll name it “Bunny”, this one has setae (socketed hairs or bristles) that remind me of a 1980s troll doll, I’ll name it “Troll”. I even had a species nicknamed “Hokusai” after the famous painter because its extruded genitalia looked just like details found in The Great Wave off Kanagawa. My colleague, Lisa Gonzalez, contributed by naming one I showed her “Sharkfin” because of its uniquely shaped midfemur. Slowly, the list of “species” I was able to separate grew. I started reading literature on the genus, and then I started working with the keys (identification tools) for the group. To my surprise, I couldn’t get most of my nicknamed flies to come out in the keys we had for the North American fauna. These keys were written back in the 1960s (the last time someone seriously took a look at the genus on this continent), and just a smattering of publications on the group in this region have been published since. I couldn’t really believe it, but it didn’t seem that most of my flies had been studied before. Many of the publications I had as references were written by the current world expert on the genus Megaselia, Dr. Henry Disney, who is retired (but still very active in research) from Cambridge University in England. Like my boss in L.A., Henry Disney works exclusively on phorids. And although Brian has kept very busy with other genera, Henry Disney has studied Megaselia for decades. I joked with Brian that I had to go “have tea with Disney” to learn the secrets of Megaselia. Then I realized: I wasn’t joking. No matter how many papers I read or drawings and photographs I looked at, I needed help from someone who knew these flies. A few months later, I was in Cambridge, studying with the master. I spent weeks in England side-by-side with Henry Disney identifying flies (and yes, we had tea together everyday, twice a day!). To determine if a Megaselia is new to science, you take it through every key for the genus ever written in the world. Megaselia have a way of getting transported across oceans and continents, so you never know when a species that turns up in California might be one originally described elsewhere. These keys are numerous, and in a handful of languages. Luckily for me, Dr. Disney had the whole process down to a science and we worked through all of the flies I brought with me. I left with a lot of work to do back home, but the potential to have several dozen new species! The business of describing species Once back home in California, I used the Natural History Museum’s collection of phorids to compare my flies with potential matches from the literature. This is done by looking at holotypes, which are “model specimens” of a species designated by an author when a species is described. After all was said and done, I ended up with 30 new species of flies in this one genus, after just three months of sampling. But my work was far from over. Next came pictures of each fly. A whole body photograph, a wing photograph, and detail photographs (I was lucky enough to have an awesome intern, Kelsey Bailey, to do these for me). The flies had to be carefully dissected (using fine pins under a microscope to carefully remove wings, legs, etc.) for detail photos. Many specimens were mounted on glass slides to be examined further. Using these slides, I carefully sketched the genitalia of each new species, and then drew clear and accurate drawings digitally from my scanned sketches. Then Brian looked over my drawings and, in the kindest way possible, told me that I had drawn certain features (like the aforementioned setae) completely wrong. So I learned how to draw all the features of my flies accurately and realistically, and then I learned some more. I can confidently say that at this point I’m a competent (perhaps even slightly accomplished) fly genitalia artist, and you can see my handiwork for these new species below.
The Genitalia! Drawn by Emily Hartop.[/caption] After all the sweat and tears of genitalia illustration, I designated holotypes, and secondary “model specimens”, called paratypes. I carefully detailed each species morphology, complete with dozen of measurements down to fractions of millimeters that took hours upon hours counting little scale bars through a microscope. I described where each fly keyed in the literature and how it failed to match any similar described species. In some cases this is very difficult, and in others, problems with the original specimens used for a description leave unanswered questions. The process takes a long time and it’s not easy. And then there was the issue of naming these flies (my silly nicknames, alas, weren’t fit for scientific publication). I had 30 new species and, conveniently, BioSCAN has 30 sites. This meant each of our fabulous site hosts got a fly named after them. Amazingly, Lisa was able to use our data to match each new species to a site where it had been found, and name each fly after a person or family that actually had that fly in their backyard. Since one of the 30 sites is the Nature Garden at NHMLA, the 30th species we named in honor of the Seaver family, whose foundation helps to fund BioSCAN. On from here For months on end I spent my days buried in fly genitalia. I did, I became a crazy fly lady. But just a year after I started getting to know and love these flies, I’ve helped to describe 30 new species right from the heart of my city… but I’m not stopping there. Not only are there cities around the world with Megaselia just waiting to be discovered, but in the jungles of the tropics the numbers of new species go from dozens to hundreds. Beyond that, we have to figure out what all these incredible new flies are doing. If other phorids decapitate ants and eat human remains, what could these 30 new species be up to here in Los Angeles? I have a lot of work to do: I’m coming for you, Megaselia!
March 18, 2015
A few weekends ago, citizen scientists from all over L.A. came to the Museum to see what they could find hiding in the damp and cool shadows of our Nature Gardens. Twenty people joined Museum experts (Lindsey Groves and Florence Nishida) to search for slugs, snails, and fungi—those often overlooked decomposers that break down dead and decaying material. They were also the first people to test out our latest and greatest citizen science project, S.L.I.M.E. (Snails and Slugs Living in Metropolitan Environments). Within ten minutes, one of our youngest citizen scientists made the first S.L.I.M.E. discovery - a glass snail (Oxychilus draparnaudi) in the Pollinator Garden.
Check out what else we found: A bunch of turkey tail fungus on a dead log:
A pile of dog's vomit slime mold on the edge of a path:
Florence shows off some inky capped mushrooms found by Christopher Lanus (which he later submitted to iNaturalist):
And our Project S.L.I.M.E. results included 45 vials of snails and slugs:
There were 18 glass snails, like this one here:
Eleven gray field slugs (Deroceras reticulatum), like this one here:
And 27 banded garden slugs (Lemannia valentiana), like this one here:
Wow, so many specimens! We learned a lot from this test of Project S.L.I.M.E. Firstly, all of the snails and slugs we found are non-native to Los Angeles! Secondly, the group found most specimens in the Pollinator Garden, but none of the gray field slugs were found there at all! Perhaps gray banded slugs don't like the plants in that part of the garden? As you can tell see this test has raised a lot of questions for us; How does the diversity of snails and slugs we found in the Nature Gardens compare to the diversity in the surrounding neighborhoods and the rest of the L.A. basin? Are most of L.A.’s urban snails and slugs non-native? How are our native snails and slugs fairing throughout the L.A. basin? Right now we don't know the answers, but when we publicly launch Project S.L.I.M.E. we'll be able to begin answering these questions because of citizen scientists like this group:
**Thanks to Jann Vendetti, Project S.L.I.M.E.'s creator! She couldn't join us for the event as she was giving birth to her daughter. Congratulations Jann! Written by Miguel Ordeñana
March 6, 2015
By Dean Pentcheff On one day in the past decade, someone who never lived an urban life came to a city. Perhaps it was a man in China looking for work in Beijing, a hungry woman from a rural farming family in India moving to Hyderabad, or perhaps a baby born in a Los Angeles hospital. That unheralded, unnoticed arrival delineated a turning point in human history. That person was the one who tipped the scale from rural to urban. For the first time, more than half of us live in cities.
Urban vs. rural population trends (United Nations. 2014. World Urbanization Prospects. ST/ESA/SER.A/352)[/caption]That trend is expected to continue, as world population expands and farming necessarily becomes ever more efficient. So what used to be a specialized and peculiar surrounding for people — cities — is now the new normal. It turns out that this matters a lot. The living world around us provides the “ecosystem services” that keep us alive. We are used to the idea that cities and towns provide us services like clean water, electricity, and fire protection, and we pay to keep those coming. In a way that we have only started to understand, though, there are many services that the living world provides us “for free” (and those quotes are deliberate): clean air, oxygen itself, the water supply, waste decomposition, pest and disease control. While we may not be writing checks for these services, it is clear that we still need to invest in keeping them running. Ecosystem services are provided by the physical and biological community around us. Those communities are built on biodiversity — the sum total of biological diversity, from the ecosystem level right through genetic variability within species. That is a direct reason why the biodiversity in and around cities matters: it is the portion of the living world that is closest to most of us and is therefore best placed to provide the services we need. There are less-specific but still important reasons why biodiversity matters, too. The biodiversity around us frames our perception of our surroundings. Trees and plants define landscapes, animals (large and small) populate the visual and sonic world in which we live, even in the face of urbanization. There is growing evidence that human health and wellbeing is directly linked to the presence of features like biodiversity and urban river parkways. But there is a problem. Traditionally, perhaps because we are used to thinking that most people live rural lives, we have a tendency to think that real biodiversity exists only outside cities. Aren't cities, by their very nature, the displacement and destruction of biodiversity? Who thinks of looking inside cities to discover and describe biodiversity? That dismissive attitude towards urban biodiversity has been, to our embarrassment, widespread even among biologists — and we should have known better. Scientists have not been immune to the message we see on TV all the time: interesting, diverse, and cool organisms exist only in remote “pristine” environments. It seemed more valuable to study “undisturbed” nature. Only in the last decade or so have we begun to see the significant growth of biodiversity and ecology investigations focused on urban systems. Now, in contrast, we are perceiving the importance of understanding the living world right where most people live. That has launched a new wave of investigations, including NHMLA's very own BioSCAN project. To our surprise (as old-fashioned biologists), the moment we started looking in cities, we started finding extraordinary unsuspected biodiversity. Of course, the bulk of that diversity is in the smaller creatures, notably insects. In retrospect, this shouldn't have been a surprise at all. Though cities differ from what was there before, cities are incredibly heterogeneous habitats. There are buildings with habitable surfaces and nooks, vegetation that, thanks to happy gardeners, is likely more diverse than the pre-existing flora, cracks in sidewalks, patches of soil, and all the other variously constructed or deconstructed spaces that make a city. All of those locations can be home to a diverse set of small creatures. The BioSCAN project has already discovered dozens of new species previously unknown to science (as well as recording the occurrence of many species only previously known from elsewhere). What we understand very poorly right now, though, is how the actual physical nature of an urban space drives the resident biodiversity. What matters? Temperature? Moisture? Closest plant species? What doesn't matter? Those are the kinds of questions that we hope to answer with the BioSCAN project's biological, physical, and landscape sampling across space and through time.
Without answers to those questions, it is impossible to productively plan urban development with biodiversity in mind. Urban planners are making decisions every day, whether they have deep knowledge of the consequences or not. If we want our future lives to be in healthy, diverse cities, we need to understand how to develop for biodiversity today. Contributing to that understanding is BioSCAN's ultimate goal.
February 20, 2015
By Elizabeth Long How lucky are you, Dear Reader? Two posts within a month about butterflies! We’re excited to announce the launch of a new study in conjunction with BioSCAN: ButterflySCAN!
By Elizabeth Long How lucky are you, Dear Reader? Two posts within a month about butterflies! We’re excited to announce the launch of a new study in conjunction with BioSCAN: ButterflySCAN! As mentioned in our last butterfly post, the sampling method that we use in BioSCAN, the Malaise trap, is an unusual way to study butterflies and not much has been written about how effective it is. Outside of the tropics the most common way to study butterfly diversity is via a method called the Pollard Walk . This is a fairly simple method that essentially consists of taking a walk along a regular, predetermined route, and writing down all of the butterflies that are seen during the walk. I love molecular genetics as much as the next biologist but I take great satisfaction in being able to do science in such a pleasant, non-technical fashion.
Pale Swallowtail (Photo credit: Zach Smith) The ButterflySCAN project is going to conduct Pollard walks while taking advantage of the fantastic framework established through BioSCAN. This will help us learn even more about an incredibly important and charismatic pollinator group. Not only do we not know much about butterflies in Malaise traps, but very few studies have ever attempted to characterize butterfly biodiversity in an urban setting. We already know from preliminary data on flies collected from BioSCAN that LA doesn’t conform to a lot of the predictions about what happens to biodiversity in an urban environment, so now we’re very curious to see if butterflies show diversity patterns similar to flies, or if they’re doing something else entirely. Pollard walks in the neighborhoods where our BioSCAN Malaise traps are location will help us determine more about these patterns of diversity for our urban butterflies.
Queen Butterfly (Photo Credit: Zach Smith) We need your help! We’re recruiting volunteers to help with these surveys for the next four months. Volunteers will commit to “surveying” (taking a pleasant stroll while observing and recording beautiful butterflies) one or more sites every two weeks for four months. We’ll provide training and support throughout the process, and we’ll keep you up-to-date on how the research is going via the blog, Facebook, and one-on-one feedback. Data from this study will be deposited on the continent-wide citizen science web portal eButterfly, making it available as a research tool for years (or centuries!) to come.
Marine Blue Butterfly (Photo Credit: Zach Smith) Volunteers will need to register for and attend one training session at the NHMLAC (the Natural History Museum in Exposition Park): either the morning of Wednesday, March 4th, or the morning of Saturday, March 7th. Want to help out? Get in touch with me at elong(at)nhm(dot)org
February 10, 2015
Heinzelmännchenbrunnen (© Raimond Spekking, via Wikimedia Commons) Who are the Heinzelmännchen who sort all those BioSCAN samples? — a peek into our lab and behind the scenes. Our BioSCAN project collects 30 samples per week, 52 weeks per year, for 3 years. That will be a staggering 4,680 samples. In order to describe the biodiversity of Los Angeles, we need to figure out what is in each jar. How can this possibly get done? The short answer is a small army of undergraduates. The longer answer is — young, bright, energetic minds looking for petri dish safaris under microscopes. [caption id="attachment_621" align="alignleft" width="242"]
Recruiting poster for BioSCAN students (photo and design credit: Phyllis Sun)[/caption]Our lab recruits from all over the USC campus, and you don’t have to be a biology major to become a valuable member of Team BioSCAN. In any given semester we have 20–30 students with majors ranging from applied mathematics to zoology. Assistant Collections Managers Adam Wall and Jenessa Wall do the initial recruiting, interviewing, and personnel selections. “Newbies” come green, inexperienced, but totally enthusiastic. Collections Manager Kathy Omura does most of the initial introduction to general lab operations. Then Kathy, Jenessa and the older students (the “Seasoned Ones”) who have been with us for a semester or more, provide microscope and lab techniques training, proper forceps handling, cotton stoppering, specimen vialing, specimen labeling, and much more. Using descriptive and pictorial identification keys, students learn how to identify insects to the taxonomic level of order, distinguishing wasps (Hymenoptera) from beetles (Coleoptera) from flies (Diptera) and 22 orders more. Students have their own lab notebooks to record observations as they proceed in their training. I smile as I reflect on my own ridiculous sketches and annotations as I learned basic taxonomy in my introduction to the vast yet miniature arthropod world many years ago. [caption id="attachment_624" align="alignright" width="250"]
BioSCAN lab notebook page[/caption]BioSCAN Assistant Collections Managers Lisa Gonzalez and Emily Hartop hone students’ finer insect identification skills and ground them in basic insect biology, arming each of them with amazing stories of ant decapitation, coffin dwelling, and human flesh boring — all good stories they can impart on friends, family and the NHMLA visitors. I’ll come back to the NHMLA visitors in a minute. Finally, Project Coordinator Dean Pentcheff rounds out student training with sessions covering everything from the big picture project goals, the science, and public expectations. The breadth of different tasks they perform is amazing. Insect sorting and sample processing are only the start. Based on their skills and interests some move on to specimen drying, pinning and labeling with those really tiny insect labels entomologists so love. Others specialize in photography. Still others help in the field, rear flies, or extract and amplify DNA for molecular studies. All of our students also spend time at the Nature Lab Table, where they do some of their work in front of our Museum visitors and are able to answer questions about insects and biodiversity. Two students at a time work at the table from Wednesday through Sunday, four hours per day, for more than 1,000 hours per year interacting with Museum visitors in the public space. [caption id="attachment_638" align="alignleft" width="300"]
Students sorting insects for the BioSCAN project (photo: Kelsey Bailey)[/caption]Because we have such excellent students working on the project, we can use a layered training and quality control scheme. Staff and veteran students approve or return for redo anything that has been misidentified by more junior staff. Students proficient at a task or taxon train others that are not yet experts. Mastery from one level to the next is an ongoing process: students become teachers communicating their new learned skills, all the while honing their skills as effective mentors and communicators. To date, the BioSCAN Project has hosted 35 students, 4 interns, 11 volunteers, and 10 research students. Three times a year new students are recruited to replace those graduating and moving on. Over the years, four of our most successful students have become amazing permanent full time NHMLA curatorial staff. It is my great pleasure to follow the development of such diverse cohorts of young people. They are incredibly diverse ethnically, socially, and in the language and skills they bring to us. They are as diverse as the biodiversity we study. They have aspirations of becoming doctors, lawyers, dentists, and filling jobs that do not yet even exist. They are amazing young people, each with amazing potential, making major contributions to the BioSCAN project. Some stay for their entire four years. A few stay in touch long after they have moved on to grad school and their careers. [caption id="attachment_631" align="alignright" width="300"]
The Marine Biodiversity Center's stable of cappuccino machines[/caption]We have some of the most amazing laboratory food fests filled with Asian, Latin American, European delicacies. Oh yes, for some learning how to make great cappuccinos is as essential as learning fly identifications. Meet these fabulous young people in the Nature Lab and say hello. As you stroll through the NHMLA gardens, if you catch a sweet waft of coffee as you turn the corner past our lab, you’ll know our students are hard at work. Meet our lab at: http://research.nhm.org/bioscan/students
January 27, 2015
On December 28, everyday people from all over Los Angeles flocked to the Natural History Museum to help count the bird life of L.A.! Some came as beginners ready for an intro to birding from Kimball Garrett, one of the best and most well-known birders in town, who also happens to be the Museum’s Ornithology Collections Manager. Others came because they were interested in contributing to this important bird census, but didn’t plan to see any surprising or remarkable species in our small urban oasis. Little did they know they were in for some surprises.
Kimball started off the morning explaining what the Christmas Bird Count (CBC) is all about. He hyped up the activity by reminding everyone that it is the oldest citizen science survey in the world and provides invaluable information on bird population trends. Another fun fact that Kimball shared was that the count began as an alternative to the Christmas “Side Hunt.” As its name implies, this annual activity brought hunters together to compete over how many birds they could kill that day! As concern grew about declining bird populations, the CBC was developed by the Audubon Society as another competitive yet non-lethal alternative to hunting birds. In that first year alone, 25 locations were counted recording 18,500 birds. Cut to 2015, and the numbers are up significantly with over 377 million birds recorded from over 1,265 counts (check CBC as the numbers keep growing). After Kimball’s brief, but inspiring intro and birding tutorial, we went outside to do our own bird count. Thirty three citizen scientists split into two teams and covered the entire Nature Gardens. We counted 207 individual birds representing 21 species within about an hour. This may seem like a drop in the bucket, but the variety of birds and our urban location made the count meaningful and memorable. The day ended up being full of surprises including finding a new Allen’s hummingbird nest (Selasphorus sasin), seeing a majestic American kestrel (Falco sparverius), and finding some birds that don’t often show up in the Nature Gardens—a Lincoln’s sparrow (Melospiza lincolnii), and a black-throated gray warbler (Setophaga nigrescens)! However, by far our most exciting record that day was of a Common poorwill (Phalaenoptilus nuttallii). As described in Lila’s 2012 Poorwill blog, although this is a common nocturnal bird of southern California foothills, it isn’t often recorded in the CBC. You see, Common poorwills are hard to find during the day you can hear them vocalizing at night during the breeding season). This nocturnal bird relies on the coloration/texture of leaf litter to hide in. As you can imagine, looking for a silent, barely-moving bird that is the exact same color as the brush and leaves around it is like looking for a needle in the proverbial haystack.
Fortunately, in the Nature Gardens we have lots of observant eyes, and the perfect habitat for these awesome birds to hang out in. As a result, we’ve recorded a Common poorwill (very likely the same individual) visiting the Nature Gardens every year since 2012. As scientists and citizen scientists continue to explore more of the urban landscapes more species patterns will become clearer. Surprising species detections like the urban-sensitive poorwill and red bat are trying to remind us that Angelenos still have the opportunity to make L.A. and other urban areas more conducive to human-wildlife coexistence. Will we answer the call? Written by Miguel Ordeñana
January 26, 2015
By Elizabeth Long By now most people familiar with the BioSCAN Project know that we spend a lot of time looking at flies, but it may come as a surprise that we are equally passionate about other insect groups that can also be used for our biodiversity research. One such group is the Order Lepidoptera, the much beloved butterflies and moths. They are not usually collected by way of Malaise traps (they get a bit soggy in the ethanol), so for this reason there’s not much information about butterfly diversity in Malaise trap based projects. When I first started to identify the BioSCAN samples, I didn’t know what to expect and I was pretty sure that we wouldn’t be finding any new species of butterflies, much less 30 new species (yes, sometimes I have phorid fly envy!) — collecting and naming butterflies has been popular for centuries.
The great joy of butterfly "hunting" in the field. Photo credit: Zach Smith Recently I found the closest thing to a new butterfly species that we’re likely to see. I opened up a jar and to my pleasant surprise I found a big, beautiful, yellow and black butterfly that I have always called the Giant Swallowtail, Papilio cresophontes. The Los Angeles area has a few different species of yellow and black swallowtails, but I am particularly intrigued by this one. The caterpillars, which are incredible mimics of bird droppings, feed on citrus leaves, so unlike a lot of butterfly species, these beautiful animals tend to benefit from human agricultural activities in Southern California. Giant Swallowtails have an interesting geographic distribution — Southern California, Arizona, New Mexico, eastward into Texas and sometimes as far north as the Great Lakes states. It just so happens that right around the time that I found this species in one of the trap samples, new research was published that suggests that the species in our area has incorrectly been identified as the same species that shows up in the Eastern US. Their main lines of evidence involve some detailed and intricate differences that are only visible if you catch the animals in question and dissect out the male genitalia, or if you take a DNA sample and do some gene sequencing. Luckily for the accomplished amateur, though, there are some slight differences in the wing patterns of the proposed new species that allow us to distinguish between the two. Let's examine the photo below:
Can you spot the differences? Photo credit: Elizabeth Long The most subtle distinction is the yellow and black patterning on the “neck” of the butterfly, but there are also a few other pattern marks that are more obvious if you know what to look for. Take a look at the arrow labeled “1” in the photograph of both the western and eastern types, pointing out a black spot on a yellow background in the forewing. You can see that the spot on the animal on the right is much smaller than the corresponding spot in the animal on the left. Next, look at arrow “2.” This arrow is pointing at the feature that gives this group of butterflies their common name- the swallowtail. The animal on the left has a thinner tail with less yellow than the animal on the right. Next have a look at arrow “3.” The hindwing margin on the animal on the left is plain black, while the animal on the right has yellow markings on the scalloped edges. The animal on the left comes from California, while the one on the right is from Florida. If you’re visiting the part of Texas where these two types of swallowtails overlap, you should try looking for these wing marks and see if you can tell them apart! If Lepidopterists do determine that these are two distinct species, then the name of these butterflies will need to be changed, which brings up an important point about the taxonomy of every major group on the planet: the more we learn about the biology of organisms, the more we have to revisit and sometimes revise our classification schemes. Chances are good that some people in the Lepidoptera community will agree with this change, but many, including myself, will have a hard time letting go of old habits when it comes to names. I may learn to call the Great Swallowtail by its new proposed name Heraclides rumiko when writing a paper, but honestly in my head I’ll probably always think of it as Papilio cresphontes, the name it had when I first learned to identify it. But regardless of what I call it, I’ll always get a smile on my face when I see this beautiful creature waft through the citrus trees in the museum’s Nature Garden.
January 9, 2015
BioSCAN is a unique project because it focuses the excitement of scientific discovery right here in our own bustling city and relies on the dedication of L.A. residents through whom those discoveries are made. Our BioSCAN site hosts provide a crucial service by keeping our large insect traps (called Malaise traps) in their back yards, changing the samples weekly, being our "eyes in the field," and by sharing photos, stories and the excitement of their own insect observations. I am thrilled to introduce Betty Defibaugh: world traveler, entomologist, Natural History Museum volunteer extraordinaire for the last 26 years, and proud BioSCAN site host! [caption id="attachment_589" align="alignnone" width="748"]
Betty with a drawer of her favorite insects: butterflies. Photo by Kelsey Bailey.[/caption] I spent a lovely afternoon with Betty at her home (otherwise affectionately known as BioSCAN Site #15) where she shared memories of her life as a fellow insect lover with me. As a young girl growing up in Missouri, she can remember the first time she became entranced with a swallowtail butterfly as it gracefully fluttered by, a moment that solidified her lifelong passion. Noticing that sense of wonder, her supportive aunt supplied her with 2 insect guide books, which Betty immediately memorized from cover to cover. Other books and natural science catalogues soon followed, such as the quintessential butterfly book by famed lepidopterist John Henry Comstock, all of which she used to teach herself about the natural history of butterflies and proper insect collection and preparation techniques. I was honored to have the chance to see Betty's collection from her earlier years and to hold letters of correspondence, complete with career advice and encouragement, plus a personal copy of the "Torre-Bueno Glossary of Entomology" sent and signed by the author himself! (Trust me; if you're an entomologist, that's the sort of thing that makes your day.) [caption id="attachment_590" align="alignnone" width="1624"]
Betty's books. Photo credit: Lisa Gonzalez[/caption] She eagerly began her education at Kansas University in 1943 knowing without a doubt that she wanted to become an entomologist and declared her major as a Freshman, causing some academic advisors to scoff at her certainty and "unusual" choice of profession. Betty was unswayed. She started working at the KU Entomology Museum as she obtained her degree and fell in love with the drawers of specimens of insects from all over the world. Those glimmering exotic butterflies spurred dreams of places that were, well, not Kansas, and inspired by a radio program called "Hawaii Calls," she accepted a job after graduation at the University of Hawaii where she worked on pest species such as the Mediterranean fruit fly. Two major events occurred during her time there: she made an important discovery of a pest caterpillar that invades commercial orchids, and she met her husband, Francis. The newlyweds would eventually leave Hawaii for the Canton Islands where they raised their two sons. The stories of her time in the South Pacific are a blog — actually a book! — all to itself; that's for me to write more about later. It will include many of the photos that Betty herself took that are featured in the book shown above incredibly titled "Tropic Isles and Things: Salt of the Indies: Being a Voluntary and Unpaid for Dissertation on the Turks and Caicos Islands and their Postage Stamps." It was such a pleasure to listen to Betty, someone who I admire dearly, talk about her life adventures and to see her eyes light up as we spoke about our mutual love for insects. When asked what she enjoys most about the BioSCAN Project, she said she was proud to be a part of ongoing museum research and was thrilled about having a fly named after her. We are equally elated to have such an amazing woman be part of the BioSCAN team!